**This is the seventy-eighth in a series of weekly reports on news from the world of Epicurean Philosophy. Our home base for discussion is https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/ Copies of these posts, and links to active Epicurean websites, are stored at EpicurusCentral.wordpress.com.
**As of tonight, our group has grown to 795. Last week this time we were 717. We continue to grow steadily, and we welcome all participants and lurkers. We are here to discuss Epicurean Philosophy, have fun, and in the words of Lucian, “strike a blow for Epicurus – that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him!”
**Last week I pointed out a recent discussion on the proper perspective on “pleasure.” There is a great debate among students of Epicurus on the meaning of Doctrines 3 and 4. Did Epicurus say Pleasure “IS” the absence of pain? Did he give a blanket endorsement to “living simply” in all cases? How can that be reconciled with Vatican Saying 63?
That discussion continued this week in a thread devoted to PD3 (“The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.”) https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735676899814606/ This thread contained considerable detail on the meaning of PD3, but for tonight’s update I want to point out one specific point that I think will lead to great benefit in analyzing this question.
The commentator who I follow most closely, Norman Dewitt, argued that it is essential to realize that much of Epicurean philosphy is an explicit rejection of prior Greek philosophy, especially the views of Plato. If this is true, we should expect to find Epicurus teaching his students arguments to oppose Plato’s Academy, and also Aristotle’s Lyceum, at least to the extent that the Peripatetics carried forward Plato’s views.
It is therefore useful to scrutinize Epicurus’ Doctrines and the Letters to determine whether they passages that seem unclear to us might be replies to the philosophical establishment as it existed in Epicurus’ day. In other words, PD1 is clearly a response to the Greek religious establishment. By observing that perfect beings are complete and have no need for reward or punishment, Epicurus provided a foundation on which any thinking person could reason his way to seeing the contradictions at the root of all religions.
Likewise, all men naturally seem to fear death, and PD2 provides a foundation for the most important response. Once we see that “death is nothing to us” because “we” no longer exist after our atoms disperse, any thinking person can reason through the ramifications and see that the state of being dead is nothing to fear.
Both of these first two doctrines are models of clarity and precision, and we can immediately grasp their purpose. They are not commands to believe that the opposing views are wrong, but observations that serve as the essential proof from which anyone who thinks about them and accepts them is then equipped to refute who assert that we should live in fear of gods and of death. The assertion that gods and death are to be feared is a view that is alive and well today, so we have no problem understanding who Epicurus was opposing, and how these doctrines serve as the medicine for curing these errors.
We can literally dash through doctrines one and two, grasping their significance immediately, and seeing how they can be applied to refute our opponents. But then we come to Doctrines 3 and 4, and (in my view) we immediately stop and say “What????” Whereas 1 and 2 were clear, 3 and 4 seem totally foreign to our way of thinking, and it is difficult to imagine why Epicurus switched from discussing universal concerns (about gods and about death) to discussing “the limit of pleasure” – something that appears to be a highly technical topic of interest only to professional philosophers.
I submit that the reason the significance of Doctrines 3 and 4 do not jump out at us is that we fail to remember the prevailing philosophical context of Epicurus’ time. We can clearly understand that Epicurus was confronted with opposing opinions on religion and on death, but what opinions did he face in promoting “Pleasure” as Nature’s guide to life?
There are many places one can look for this background, but one source that is likely to be fruitful is Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics.” Aristotle and Plato were the recognized leaders of the Greek philosophical scene at the time of Epicurus, and though their fame survives today, few know the details of their philosophical positions. We can find much good information about this in Book Ten of Nichomachean Ethics, which devotes much attention to “pleasure.” In this chapter Aristotle relates that the argument that Plato used to “prove the good not to be pleasure”:
“Further, he argued that pleasure when added to any good, e.g. to just or temperate action, makes it more worthy of choice, and that it is only by itself that the good can be increased. This argument seems to show it to be one of the goods, and no more a good than any other; for every good is more worthy of choice along with another good than taken alone. And so it is by an argument of this kind that Plato proves the good not to be pleasure; he argues that the pleasant life is more desirable with wisdom than without, and that if the mixture is better, pleasure is not the good; for the good cannot become more desirable by the addition of anything to it. Now it is clear that nothing else, any more than pleasure, can be the good if it is made more desirable by the addition of any of the things that are good in themselves.”
Further down in the same book, Aristotle says:
“Nor again, if pleasure is not a quality, does it follow that it is not a good; for the activities of virtue are not qualities either, nor is happiness. They say, however, that the good is determinate, while pleasure is indeterminate, because it admits of degrees. Now if it is from the feeling of pleasure that they judge thus, the same will be true of justice and the other virtues, in respect of which we plainly say that people of a certain character are so more or less, and act more or less in accordance with these virtues; for people may be more just or brave, and it is possible also to act justly or temperately more or less. But if their judgement is based on the various pleasures, surely they are not stating the real cause, if in fact some pleasures are unmixed and others mixed.”
These two quotes only scratch the surface, but I believe they are sufficient to indicate that the philosophical establishment prior to Epicurus was teaching that pleasure COULD NOT be “the good” because (1) pleasure is incomplete, because it can be made more desirable by adding other things to it (such as wisdom), and (2) pleasure exists in degrees, while “the good” must be a superlative degree of which nothing is higher.
If this summary is correct, Epicurus had at least three major targest against which he had to arm his students. He had to arm his students against the argument of religion that men should fear gods, and he had to arm his students against the secular argument that death is something to be feared, and he had to arm his students against the argument of false philosophers that “Pleasure cannot be the good because it is incomplete and exists in degrees.”
By no means do I suggest that my formulation here is sufficiently precise. Much more studying of Plato and Aristotle would be required to fill out the background and understand Epicurus’ reply. But it seems to me that the meaning of PD3 (and also PD4, which also seems contrary to passages found in the same section of Aristotle) are probably a response to these Platonic objections against Pleasure as the good. In other words, Doctrines 3 and 4 were never intended to consitute an absolute requirement that all men should always “live simply” – this would violate Vatican Saying 63. What Doctrines 3 and 4 seem inteded to do is to set forth that pleasure unadulterated with pain (“in the absence of pain”) is complete in itself, that such pleasure needs nothing added to it that would make it better, and such pleasure is not flickering in intensity like a candle, but can and does exist – in unadulterated and thus the highest possible degree – as a supreme good.
Most of us today, at least in the Western world, do not regularly run into people who argue that pleasure is evil, and pain is good. These arguments still exist in fundamentalist religious and other circles, but they are rarely presented today as issues of “completeness” or “degree” as Plato and Aristotle presented them. In the pre-Epicurean days, however, As Aristotle makes clear, “…some say pleasure is the good, while others, on the contrary, say it is thoroughly bad-some no doubt being persuaded that the facts are so, and others thinking it has a better effect on our life to exhibit pleasure as a bad thing even if it is not.”
This means that Epicurus was faced with a world that preached at least three deadly errors: (1) the error that gods rule, (2) the error that death is to be feared, and (3) the error that pleasure is evil and is not the good according to Nature.
The entirety of Epicurean philosophy is devoted to showing how Nature provides that pleasure is the guide to life, to be pursued rationally using the faculties nature has provided. It would thus have been of supreme importance to battle against these error early, often, and at the deepest possible level. Understood in this way, Doctrines 3 and 4 constitute an explicit refutation of Plato and Aristotle, and not a mundane statement that we are best off eating bread and water. Epicurus was teaching that Pleasure can be complete in itself, that a “highest” state of pleasure exists; and that this state is not just a theory but something that is truly attainable during our lifetimes.
The study of Epicurus can often seem like detective work. Anyone interested in investigating these leads would be well served to read Norman DeWitt’s “Epicurus and His Philosophy” (where I found the basics of this argument) and compare it to Book Ten of Aristotle’s Nichomchean Ethics. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/nicomachean/book10.html
There is much more to be studied and said on this topic, but for now lets move to the news of the week:
**Several of the deepest posts of the week were started by Aurelius E., including this one on Epicurus’ attitude toward geometry: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735304593185170/
**Aurelius E. also posted this one on the “hedonist criticism” of Epicurus, which was very helpful in pursuing the topic with which I opened up the update. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735385549843741/
**Continuing on the same line, I posted about the life story of Atticus, friend of Cicero, famous Epicurean, and someone who most certainly did not “live simply.” https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/736598433055786/
**Ilkka posted a link to a TED talk about how overindulgence leads to death. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735493936499569/
**Elli posted a graphic to an excellent quote by Nietzsche contrasting Stoic and Epicurean attitudes toward life: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10204590490145271&set=gm.735720609810235&type=1
**Hiram posted a link to an article at The Humanist Magazine on determinism. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735835409798755/
**Hiram also wrote an excellent article at HumanistLife.org.uk about the revival of Epicurean philosophy in the modern world. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/736442216404741/
**This past week included the Twentieth of October, and I posted this article contrasting Stoic v Epicurean decisionmaking: https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/735151806533782/
**Alexander posted an interesting link about how taste seems to be a function of shape of molecules, a very interesting parallel to Epicurean atomism if there ever was one. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/736711923044437/
**We had many new members this week, but Piper Ang. was one of the few to speak up and say hello. We always encourage new members to do that, so please feel free to introduce yourself at any time! https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/736445729737723/
**Alexander posted to an article on “randomness,” which is also a topic in which precision is very important. https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/permalink/736726753042954/
**OK that’s it for this week! Feel free to post any comments in this thread. I apologize if I missed anyone or anything. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please add a comment or participate in the Epicurean Philosophy Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/EpicureanPhilosophy/ or hop around the internet word of Epicurean Philosophy by checking the links here: EpicurusCentral.wordpress.com
PEACE AND SAFETY!